As we approach 20 years since 9/11, my strongest memory is still the emotional horror I felt that day, the gut wrenching sorrow of witnessing more than 3000 deaths in one morning. It was a brutal day. Collectively, there was really nothing we could do, so we just got together to cry and grieve.
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Today I keep thinking about this one number. The number is 656,000, the number of Americans who have died from Covid-19. I wonder why we don’t feel the same sense of horror and sorrow at such a staggering loss of life. Any senseless loss of life is tragic, but why do we not mourn the loss of 565,000 the same way we mourned those 3,000 twenty years ago? Is it the violence? Is it that Covid deaths have been spread out over so much time? Are they too remote (we don’t have to watch them happen live on tv)? Is it that so many of them involve the elderly and the sick? Is it that conspiracy theories, culture wars, and Covid-denial has captured so many, offering them a way to avoid facing reality?
I’m not sure why we don’t feel the same about the loss of life, but we don’t. It’s different this time, and I don’t think the difference is a good sign for our culture as a whole.
Often, during these kinds of apocalyptic events we feel helpless. Global events are so distant, we typically feel like there’s nothing we could do to have an impact. On 9/11, I remember feeling that sense of helplessness. I think it served to move us toward one another in neighborly concern. Here amidst a Covid nightmare I am grateful that there is, actually, something practical I can do to help. I can wear my mask and get the vaccination. To me, it seems like the least that I can do.
Granted I’m a Christian, and even worse, a pastor. So perhaps I am not a neutral observer. However, I have watched as so many Christians went from public and pious prayers for the scientists and for the quick and successful development of a vaccine, to a passionate, fearful, and frankly irrational and alarmist fervor against the very answer to their prayers, in just a matter of months. Think about that for a moment: vitriolic, raging anger over a life-saving vaccination that could end this pandemic. You gotta ask yourself, why that drastic change?
For my part, I just want to remind us that the Christian faith holds that when these sort of global catastrophes happen, the last thing on our minds should be any sort of passionate regard for our own personal rights and freedoms. The central invitation of Jesus was, “Take up your cross and follow me.” There’s your freedom. True friendship is not to rail about our personal rights, but to lay down our lives for our neighbors. Harping about the defense of personal liberties, and protections against the tyranny of government is essential if we’re talking about economic and social injustice. But it’s frankly embarrassing when the subject is mask-wearing in public, or getting a vaccination in the face of so much death… I see no Christ in this.
Personal liberties and my “rights” as an American are the furthest thing from my mind in this moment. All I can think of is this horrific number: 656,000 … and counting.